Like many people, I’m fascinated by lottery tickets. In many ways they’re the purest speculative investment in the world: a piece of paper which is all but worthless today might be worth $200 million tomorrow. Literally. Lottery tickets are a bit like SWAG assets (silver, wine, art gold) in that you can only make money on them by giving them up and exchanging them for cash. They pay no dividends, and they have an asymmetrical payout: the most you can lose on any one ticket is a modest dollar, but the most you can gain is enormous.
On top of that, lotteries can be gamed, as Jonah Lehrer spelled out in a fantastic Wired story last year. And casinos can be gamed too, as Mark Bowden explains in the the latest issue of The Atlantic. Beating the odds is a staple of great narrative journalism for good reason, and of movies, too. Which is why it’s so incredibly depressing to see this being hosted at CNN Money, under the headline “Boost your odds of winning the lottery”.
Richard Lustig is a get-rich-quick hack with no idea at all of how to beat any lottery. Yes, he’s won an impressive number of jackpots. But he also advises that one third of all your winnings should be “reinvested” into lottery tickets — which means that he’s betting an enormous amount of money every week. He never gives any indication of what his ROI is; indeed, he never actually comes out and says that he’s a net winner. Neither can I see any indication that all the money he’s gambling is his own. Certainly Lustig’s bare-bones website, which seems like it was designed in 1997 and which features an ad for 995SunGlasses.com, gives the impression of someone who’s on a very tight budget. And the less said about his all-caps Twitter feed, the better.
Lustig’s advice is simply bizarre: he reckons that you should buy lottery numbers in sequence, and that you should never buy “quick-pick” (randomly-generated) tickets. In fact, if you’re going to play the lottery, the rational way to play the lottery is to do the exact opposite of Lustig’s advice. Never pick your own numbers; always accept random numbers. The reason is that when lotteries have big prizes, those prizes are parcelled out between everybody who had the winning numbers. For instance, in August 2010, Lustig had a winning ticket in a draw where the jackpot was $197,985.84. But so did someone else — so he ended up winning only half that amount. And if you want to minimize your chances of overlapping with someone else, you’re much better off accepting a set of random numbers than you are using some kind of human-generated method. Remember when 110 people all had the winning numbers 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39, just because those numbers were printed in fortune cookies?
I have no problem with people spending small amounts of money on the lottery — in fact, sometimes it’s a positively good idea. But I do have a problem with anybody who’s shilling the idea that you can make money this way. And I have a huge problem with respected websites like CNN Money giving that person extremely positive publicity, without any hint of skepticism about the claims involved.
Let’s be clear about this: if you buy a lottery ticket, you should expect to lose all of your money. If you still want to buy a ticket knowing that you’re not going to get your money back, then go right ahead. But spending $40 on Richard Lustig’s book is a very, very, very bad idea, not least because you’ll probably end up spending many times that much money on tickets. And it’s downright unethical for CNN Money to implicitly encourage people to do so, by running dreck like this.
UPDATE: CNN has taken the video down. “The CNNMoney newsroom takes great pride in its journalism, with consistently high standards for reporting,” says a CNN Money spokesperson. “This video fell short of that mark and we’ve chosen to remove it from our site.”Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com. Tags: CNN Money, Lottery, Numeracy, Personal Finance, Richard Lustig